By Margaret Van Every
I was born, like the rest of us, letting loose the lusty first cries of life . . . only I kept crying long after most babies calm down because I had colic. I cried so much my parents were evicted from their apartment. The wisdom of the era counseled parents to let the baby cry and not pick her up or comfort her. She’s trying to manipulate you, the gurus insisted, and picking her up will spoil her for life. A spoiled child was a brat who got that way because parents coddled her and administered to her manipulative ploys. So my mother “just let me stew,” as she put it, and started praying. She turned to Christian Science.
As Fate would have it, my firstborn—my nemesis who paid me in kind for what I had inflicted on my own parents—had colic, too. By the 1960s the thinking was that the mother was to blame for having passed on her stress to the infant, causing a digestive disorder. We were not counseled to ignore the cries of distress, but no amount of bouncing, cuddling, music, or soothing words helped. Though the blame had shifted from the babe to the mom, there was still no remedy.
I grew up in a household governed by a stern father, who imposed his Old Country code of conduct on his wife and two daughters. Tears on our cheeks showed lack of emotional control akin to peeing in our pants. It wrought shame and wasn’t permissible. If you fell and skinned your knee, you were told “don’t cry.” If your mother died, you were told “keep a stiff upper lip.” If you cried for any reason, you were sent to your room in disgrace.
Around five or six years ago I started hearing the phrase “so-and-so got emotional.” At first I wondered what emotion they were referring to, since emotions comprise a gamut of feelings from anger and rage to love and lust, adoration and hate, envy and admiration, and many others. I then realized that a descriptor had cropped up for polite, reserved crying—eyes watering, a visible tear or two, choking up, not being able to finish the sentence. In no way did it include sobbing or totally breaking down, also labeled loss of composure. It certainly did not include snorting, sniffling, or needing a handkerchief.
Crying, especially in the case of men, had previously been unacceptable, as though the crier was a cry baby, a wimp, a sissy, unmanly. Now, within understood limits, it had sneakily become okay, but only under this ill-fitting euphemism of “getting emotional.” A euphemism is a word or phrase concocted to obfuscate the unmentionable. Thus we have “was emotional” for “cried.” Plenty of men have lost control, however, and some paid a heavy price for it, notably Edmund Muskie in 1972, when he lost the Democratic presidential nomination presumably for crying three times in a speech defending his wife’s character. Muskie, however, rather than acknowledge his tears, literally attributed the water on his face to melting snow. People were so disgusted with his emotional outburst that it is blamed for putting an end to his political career.
Women have always acknowledged crying as an entitlement within the repertoire of feminine wiles as long they don’t let their mascara run, which is bad manners, not to mention uglifying. In fact, tears on demand have forever been among feminine stratagems for showing contrition or dissolving the stony heart of a lover or getting out of paying a traffic fine. At last, men—who have dammed their tears for years in order to be seen as masculine—are letting them flow. Good men, manly men, may get emotional without putting their career on the skids. President Obama, for example, has cried on various occasions, mainly for senseless violence run amok in the country. George W. cried over 9/11. Newsman Walter Cronkite, a tear pioneer, is largely remembered for shedding a tear and choking up when he announced that JFK was dead. Anderson Cooper got emotional in New Orleans while reporting on Katrina.
The public expression of grief through tears is becoming more admissible and is no longer the purview of women alone. Perhaps its increased acceptability for men is attributable in part to the increased social acceptance of gays and transgender males, perhaps an awareness that we all share traits of both genders. There is also the point of view that tears are a healthful release, a way of curing repressed emotion.
I had a friend from the mideast who lived briefly in Ajijic. When he was experiencing a painful emotional upheaval, he excused himself from society, shut himself up at home, and cried for three days. He then would emerge a new man. Polls show there is still social disapproval of the man who cries, but let us hope the day comes soon when there is no more shame attached to expressing grief through tears. Being emotional is about all that’s left to distinguish the human being from the robot.